Issues Archives: Volume 03

Villa Vanilla Rainforest Spices

 While visiting Manuel Antonio Park we discovered a treasure 10 miles East of Quepos—the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation now known as Rainforest Spices. One of my passions is cooking so I was excited to see this farm and the process of growing and cultivating vanilla. To my surprise this 27 acre farm went well beyond traditional organic farming of vanilla. The farm boasts a rich cultural environment of epiphytes, orchids, bromeliads, tilandsias, spice trees, cocoa and medicinal plants as well as goats, chickens and cows.

The crops are grown bio-dynamically a process, the owner Henry Karcyznski, discovered through research after a blight effected his farm. In fact, he is the only demeter certified farm using bio-dynamic cultural sustainable practices. This diverse system prevents diseases and land use problems associated with single-crop agriculture.

Henry met us upon arrival and we quickly hit it off. Both Henry and my husband spent time in Jamaica and they started sharing stories. As we walked through his farm my senses were infused with visual beauty, amazing floral scents and flavors. The tour is more than just delighting the senses, even though that is a major part, it is also very educational. After walking through the epiphyte trail we saw a vanilla vine in bloom.  I admit I really got excited!  As I took in the sight of the beautiful blossom Henry explained once the plant blooms, there is a 24 hour window for pollination and each blossom must be hand-pollinated–a labor intensive crop.

Preparing vanilla orchid for pollination

Stimulation of your taste buds is a large part of the tour experience.  Tasting  is two part–on the trail and at the cabana area.   As you walk along the path through the farm–you will taste leaves plucked straight from the tree each with a distinctive flavor bursting on your palate.  I tasted peppercorns fresh from the tree-the heat erupting in my mouth and true cinnamon called ceylon shaved directly from a branch–the flavor surprised me both spicy and sweet.  I was in sensory heaven but it doesn’t stop here.

Celyon

Cassia

As an alchemist Henry understands the medicinal properties of plants. He informed us on the benefits of Ceylon—true cinnamon and cautioned us on the use of cassia which has been banned in Germany—the pretty well formed cinnamon sticks that many people use. True cinnamon, or Celyon, is lighter in color and the sticks are delicate with flaky layers—more like cigar tobacco. The thick, dark sticks are cassia. Henry informed us that Ceylon is the healthy type of cinnamon.

Cinnamon is beneficial for detoxification, promotes insulin production and has very good anti-oxidant properties. As a retired nurse, I was very interested in the medicinal benefits of the plants he grew. The second part of tasting is located in a lovely cabana area called Rainforest Viewpoint.  There is a bar, table and chairs to sit at. We were served Ceylon tea and desserts made from pepper, cheesecake and chocolate cookie with vanilla ice-cream made from farm fresh milk and cream from their dairy cow. The desserts are delicious prepared by their own pastry chef. I was surprised how sweet and delicious the Ceylon tea was without any added sugar. Henry steeps the Ceylon bark for 24 hours to produce this lovely tea. The recipe for Ceylon tea is printed on the package of Ceylon bark pieces available for purchase in their “Spice Shoppe.” We purchased about a Kilo of vanilla beans, extract, ground Ceylon, pepper seeds both white and black and cocoa pods.

These have made wonderful gifts for our family and friends. His vanilla is the best I have ever used. If you are anywhere near a “foodie” you will not be disappointed in this tour. It is still one of the highlights of my time in Manuel Antonio and I look forward to returning for another visit. Update: Time for another visit, the vanilla beans are getting low and the extract is long gone.

Tours are half day and available in the morning and afternoon. The tour description and driving directions can be found on his website at www.rainforestspices.com as well as informative articles. Or you may contact him directly cell: 506-8839-2721 or at the farm 506-2779-1155.

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Getting the Squeeze

It’s all in the Squeeze! Because there is nothing like fresh-picked flavor.

Central America is blessed with many abundances and the flavor of just-picked fruit is one of the many memories that last long after a trip. So what’s that amazing flavor? Is it grown on site, nearby? Ask your host where it is sourced. It could come from their garden, grandpa’s garden, a local grower, the farmer’s market (mercado), a road-side fruit stand, even semi-frozen packets of fresh fruit pulp.

Local farmer’s markets are a feast for the eyes and the camera as the colors, the aromas, the faces, the hustle and bustle and the sounds combine to make it a chance to check out the local lifestyle.  Mercados (markets) carry fresh locally grown goods, cheeses, coffee, and seafood, however we found that even in the tropics of Costa Rica, great looking grapes (Chile) and apples, peaches and pears (USA) were on the tables; clearly not indigenous to the region. Don’t be shy, you probably won’t be denied a chance to taste any of the goods on display if you show interest.

Growers in Costa Rica can chose to sell locally or use the efficient global transportation and distribution networks to export products. For you, it means produce can move across continents as quickly as it can across states or provinces, bringing great tasting produce to a local market near you.

One needs to be a bit more creative in where to look.  Check out Latin, Mexican, Asian or Middle Eastern markets, all carry a dizzying array of fresh tropical fruit and frozen puree. Once in hand we tackle the next great challenge.

Why juice tastes better in the tropics. Great tasting food comes from the freshest ingredients. Let’s focus on citrus; lemons, limes and oranges.  Excellent in their natural state, but they also travel well encased in their own bubble-wrap skin. The method of extraction and handling fresh juice makes all the difference to maintain that wonderful taste until you serve it.

Tools of the trade for extraction or “The Squeeze”

Think about the term “fresh-squeezed juice”, the term defines the process; squeezed, not routed or reamed. While you could just use your strong hands to squeeze a half or whole fruit, we prefer the simplicity of time-tested tools over contraptions and spinning things  Professional bartenders get it right when they use the simplest, most durable and efficient tools when making drinks with fresh squeezed citrus.

The pithy white insides are bitter. These were squeezed on a rotary juicer.

The very effective metal style hand squeezer shown here is available at most Latin markets in North America for around $4-6.00USD, more at liquor chains or kitchen specialty stores. These markets often carry different sized models that match the size and color of the citrus intended to be juiced; green for limes, yellow for lemons and orange, well you get it. Just a word of caution, inserting the halved fruit can be counter-intuitive; the cut surface of the fruit faces downward towards the holes in the cup while the plunger side essentially breaks the back of the fruit and squeezes juice out through the holes over your bowl or glass. You’ll know from the tangy shower if you’ve loaded the fruit the wrong way.

Why the press or hand squeezer?  Hand squeezers always get it right.  Having said that, spinning or spindle devices can too, but while commonly sold, these devices that rotate the fruit over a spindle or a hand held spindle must be used sparingly, meaning the user must be careful to avoid over processing the fruit beyond the juice cells. It makes sense to want that “last-drop” for all the effort, but electro-mechanical or jar-top reaming devices can encourage an overuse of force and time in motion, meaning, after the juice has been extracted, we are only adding bitterness. The white sectional fibers and pith on the inside of the fruit extract a bitterness when over exposed to the reamer.  How much is enough?  Just the right amount, that’s how much, and that’s exactly what makes it so hard and easy at the same time.  We do use electronic juicers and every batch of fruit, based on its ripeness or softness changes the pressure we use or the time we keep it on the spinner.  Electrical devices can also friction-heat the juice, which, beyond what we have just discussed begins the oxidation deterioration of the flavor, our next topic.

Handling fresh juice: Time, temperature and air are the enemies of fresh fruit juice, of almost anything fresh, but fresh juice begins to deteriorate the moment a whole citrus is cut open, exposing the inside to air. Heating juice is essentially a form of pasteurization or preserving and we know what that does to flavor.  If your fruit is clean, fresh with no spoiled spots or insects, it should be bacteria-free. But deciding to heat, pasteurize or preserving is your decision. Fresh juice, especially the delicate lime, when exposed to air at room temperature will begin to deteriorate in flavor in just minutes; taking on a processed or bottled juice flavor.  Enough said about that, prep juice when you are ready to use it or cover and refrigerate till use.  Once mixed with a sugar solution, sugar is a preservative and will help to stabilize the favor.

Gadget or Gimmick: Now that you have that part down, lets talk about the other kitchen gadgets gimmicks. We love the variety of tools and toys available in the foodie marketplace. We’ve even got drawers full of one-time use gadgets we’ve tried over the years.  Like that mango slicer; how did that improve the rim of a glass method, or the natural appeal of a half sliced mango, scored and folded to open on your plate.  Digressing, those spring-loaded scissor-type devices will give you a squirt and a pinch but also take two hands to steady it and are not efficient enough to give (or your patience) enough quantity. Now the reamers and other tools, well its a combination of the above, and while they are great when properly used, its just more difficult than the old hand-held stand-by that we stand by.

 

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Prince or Frog? Are They Real?

Probably more symbolic than any other animal in Costa Rica, the red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) reigns as the most iconic and widely recognized representative of Costa Rica’s natural beauty, and fittingly, the mascot of Costa Rica Guest Magazine.  Many think this princely frog exists only as a caricature or clip art, but this little guy is real.  In his regal robes, he wears a vivid neon-green body, blue flanks, white under belly and bright orange fingers and toes combined with its bulging red eyes make it a sight to behold, and hold we did. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not slimy, just cool to touch with sticky fingers and toes. Nature’s bright coloration often signals to predators that its non-palatable, though not always poisonous, as in this case.

 

Rain-forest amphibians thrive in much of the the country from the lowlands of 50 meters to 700 meters. They sleep during the day usually stuck to the bottoms of leaves with their eyes closed and body markings covered. If disturbed, they flash their bulging red eyes and reveal their huge, webbed orange feet and bright blue-and-yellow flanks. This technique, called startle-coloration, may give a predator slight pause or at least question their meal choice, enabling time to leap and escape to safety. Another theory is that the bright coloration of the frog may over-stimulate the nocturnal predator’s sensitive eyes, creating a ghost image that remains behind as the frog leaps away.

Natural beauty suppresses the typical reaction of “ooh, its a frog” and makes you want to reach and touch it to see if its real. With the help of a guide and proper instruction we were able to handle this beauty and he didn’t appear to mind at all but seemed to revel in the joy of your experience.

While our red-eyed frog is truly amazing, he’s not the only frog famous for its unique brilliance or display of color, and the next two also carry the menacing moniker of “Poison Dart Frog”.  The term “poison dart” is derived from the use of the frog’s toxic secretions to coat the tips of arrows and blow darts used by indigenous Amerindians. The poison provides just enough toxin to kill a small animal and stun larger ones, while not generally strong enough to kill humans, it can make one ill and these little guys are best viewed at a distance and left unmolested.
bluejeansfrog

The strawberry poison dart frog or blue jean frog (Dendrobates pumilio) is one of the most prominent frogs of Costa Rica. Usually seen on the forest floor where they move with small hops and exaggerated walking movements. blue-jeans-poison-dart-frog-hali-sowleIt receives its name from its bright red body and denim blue legs or “blue jeans.” Found in many national parks and nature reserves, its very small dimensions of ¾ to 1 inch make it easy to miss. Its bright color warns predators of its toxicity. It is not known to be lethal to man but if touched its skin oils can have unpredictable effects on humans.

The green and black poison dart frogs (Dendrobates auratus) can also be found throughout the country. It lives on the rainforest floor but have often been spotted in the water that pools inside the leaves of bromeliads. A mother frog will take young frogs on her back and climb trees to place the babies greenblackfroginto the bromeliad pools where they will grow and feed on the insects that fall into the water. Just another example of biological symbiosis in nature.  While not the most toxic of the poison dart frogs and like most poison dart frogs, it will only release its poison if it feels threatened.

Frogs and more can be seen up close and personal in the wild or in a more tame environment designed for safe interaction at many wildlife sanctuaries. La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a great place to see these frogs during the daytime. Many lodges can arrange guided night time flashlight tours for around $5-15 that will introduce you to a different world of nocturnal critters. Within the landscaped grounds and walkways of your lodging, you can often find frogs near puddles of water, pools, water features and on the large leaves of tropical plants like heliconia and ginger. Frogs do make croaking noises so if you listen and follow the source with your eyes and flashlight you will see them. They are usually not jumpy and will stay put while you view and move on.

Editor’s Note: When walking the trails in any remote and tropical region, a guide is recommended, yet even with a guide that knows where danger is likely to be found (and avoided), their eyes cannot be everywhere. We strongly discourage you from stepping off trail, particularly at night and near known feeding areas.  Our adult son stepped off-trail into a grove of heliconia in search of frogs only to find he was not the only one looking for frogs that night. He stepped only inches from a coiled Fer-de-Lance, one of the most aggressive and venomous snakes in the world. Fortunately a slow retreat resulted in a safe exit. If you choose to venture out on your own, please stay on main trails and watch where you step!

 

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In Search Of Nature’s Jewelry

Sitting in my Costa Rica home and thinking about the content for this article, I thought that starting with a quote that spoke of how the remarkable Blue Morpho makes one feel would be a good idea; because it’s the feeling that lasts well beyond the visual experience. My concern was, however, finding the right words that were as picturesque as the subject, or as joyful and accurate in helping describe the beauty and magic of these wonderful creatures would be challenging.

Then all of a sudden, like the flash of the Blue Morpho’s shimmering wing, there it was! I found my quote! I knew this was the perfect inspiration to start this journey to share with you. I am Jonathan Saborio Montoya and this is where we begin.

Butterflies are not insects, Captain John Sterling said soberly. They are self-propelled flowers.  Robert A. Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

Upon reading this quote, multiple images and memories began to explode from my heart. Hundreds of small and large moments flooded my mind of the many times I walked over the many trails in Costa Rica’s wonderful National Parks where these creatures are so abundant. I visualized the many colors of butterflies, red, yellow, blue, a cornucopia of colors and spots, like shining precious jewels. They seem to appear out of nowhere–the flying flowers of the dense tropical jungles in this beautiful country.

I then began reflecting on my time working at a butterfly exhibition and how I was amazed at the incredible moments of seeing a flower waving its petals. Oh no wait! It wasn’t the flower moving, it actually was three or five butterflies feeding from the nectar of that flower. Even more impressive was when one of the butterflies flew away giving the illusion that a part of the flower had detached and flew up into the sky, escorted by the breeze. It seemed impossible, yet true! It happened right in front of my eyes!

Costa Rica is a country full of vibrant nature and much beauty. As a tour guide I’ve had many wonderful encounters and incredible experiences. I have gained a wealth of experience and insight of my country and its wildlife. I am grateful for the knowledge I have acquired through these experiences and the ability to share this with visitors. I found I can learn from the visitors too as they respond to their moments here.

My ultimate desire for visitors is they will experience unforgettable moments for themselves with life effecting encounters with our nature and culture. While working as a guide specializing in butterflies, I had some wonderful experiences. I will never forget the carefree children frolicking and playing in a joyful flight along with the butterflies, nor will I forget people laughing with the funny moments. In one instance a family was engaging in a jeopardy-like exchange as I posed questions. One question was how many wings a butterfly had.

The response was the obvious to them, two wings but I had to correct them that no, a butterfly has 4 wings. We laughed hard on this one! Or when I asked them to draw closer to the butterfly and view its tiny eyes. I explained though tiny, these eyes are capable of identifying colors and light. Foremost in my memory and one that left an indelible impression on me was the moment when someone thanked God for the experience they were living at that moment and for the awesome beauty of nature.

Another fond moment was an experience with a visitor from the USA. I refer to her as Lady Butterfly as she loved butterflies and came to Costa Rica for the sole purpose of butterfly encounters. I was her personal guide for the day. She had worked hard to get here and had great anticipation for this day and what she would experience surrounded by butterflies. I remember her saying as we started the tour, “This is my dream.” I knew then that I was the lucky one as I had the privilege of showing her this dream and to experience this moment with her.

Before continuing with the story of Lady Butterfly, I want to digress for a moment and ask you, the reader something. I hope you are familiar with the Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) butterfly or at least have read or seen pictures of this magnificent butterfly. It is one of the most popular (although not the most abundant) butterflies in Costa Rica and one of the most amazing butterflies I have ever seen. Its inner wing side has a blue crystal translucent color that changes depending on the direction of light shining through its wings.The outside of its wings are brown with 14 eye spots as camouflage to scare predators away. For me, this butterfly doesn’t fly; it floats on air and is incredible to watch. Blue Morpho butterflies are actually very “shy” and they normally do not land on people as many of the other “friendly” butterflies do when you visit a butterfly house in Costa Rica. If you happen to be a lucky one to have one land on your head or clothing, or even your face (so tickling you have to see the kids laughing out loud when they have one butterfly on their small noses), they usually close their wings. This is done for protection so the camouflage hides its magnificent blue color and its mysticism.

So with that said, let’s return to my story with Lady Butterfly. As we entered the green house at the butterfly exhibit where I worked, hundreds of different species of butterflies were flying about. I will never forget Lady Butterfly’s initial response. She froze as if in shock and could not speak—it was very dramatic. She just stood there in awe, frozen in a moment in time with absolute amazement. She was living her dream. I was the one who finally broke the silence and we began sharing our knowledge, our thoughts, and what this incredible moment meant to both of us.

While engaged in our conversation, Lady Butterfly put out her hand and out of nowhere a Blue Morpho butterfly posed itself on her hand. At that moment time seemed to slow down then without a trace of doubt the butterfly opened its beautiful wings displaying its iridescent blue color. I was absolutely shocked at what I was seeing as I thought this was actually quite impossible because this is not normal Blue Morpho butterfly behavior. They are even hard to capture a picture of! Lady Butterfly stared into my eyes and started to cry. It was one of the most incredible feelings I have ever experienced. She was like a child enjoying her moment with no fear, no mask, no lies–she became pure essence living the moment! This was by far one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

I do believe that many people in the world understand that butterflies are incredible creatures. Even if you are not a fan of butterflies, I am sure when you visit Costa Rica and see the many beautiful species, you will be amazed by their grace and beauty. The variety of patterns, colors, and defense mechanisms, are so interesting. In addition, their incredible magical life cycle from egg through larva to pupa and finally an adult along with the mating process and feeding habits contribute to their unique characteristics. These sensational insects are such a great source of learning and enjoyment.

You don’t know where to find them? Don’t worry just visit one of the thousand trails Costa Rica has to offer in their National Parks, Natural Reserves and Nature Refuges. I bet you will see butterflies. There are also many butterfly exhibits throughout Costa Rica where you can see a concentration of butterflies in one location. Sometimes in nature it is a bit more difficult to see a butterfly making these exhibits popular. As a butterfly and nature lover, I would very much like to invite you to come to this unique country and enjoy the happiness, the peace, and the love that nature provides us with.

Something to note is that Costa Rica has only two seasons—dry and wet. No winter here!
Either season is a great time to visit. Butterflies are seen during both seasons, but they are particularly abundant during the rainy season.

After sharing some of my experiences with butterflies, I would like to say not a “good-bye” but a “see you soon.” I would also like to share one last quote with you.

The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough. Rabindranath Tagore

 

Do not wait for months. Let us count thousands of moments in Costa Rica and especially with these incredible insects. No. I am sorry–and especially with these “self-propelled flowers. Welcome to our country, Costa Rica! Pura Vida, Jonathan.

Editors Note: A Guide’s eye view on tourism and natural beauty. Jonathan Saborio Montoya is a creative and inspiring young man we had the pleasure to meet while on assignment in Costa Rica. It seems we were destined to meet. For the first time in many weeks, we had no appointments, schedules nor other places we needed to be, only the right amount of time to follow through on a promise made that we would find time to meet Jonathan in person.

About the Author: Jonathan Saborio Montoya

A special individual who thrives on sharing his land and its wonders with Guests.  Jonathan is a brilliant bi-lingual, college graduate, artist, writer, designer and a licensed Costa Rica Guide (ICT#962).

There is much more to experience in and about Costa Rica than tourism zones. So wherever you’re headed, whatever you chose to do, be sure to include Jonathan because there is no better host to share Costa Rica. Fittingly, Jonathan worthy of Costa Rica Guest’s “Rafa Medallion of Friendship”. Jonathan can be reached through the magazine at [email protected] The signed piece “Blue Morpho” was painted by Jonathan as a gift to his father. Dimension: 4’x 6′.

 

Butterfly Farm: Sadly, the butterfly farm where we first met Jonathan closed its garden for tourism.  It was a place of inspiration for those able to visit the Alajuela, Costa Rica site. However, we have confirmed that the conservation and breeding efforts of the company remain as Costa Rica Entomological Supply (CRES) and is still the world leader in the supply of tropical butterfly paupe for live butterfly exhibitions, zoos and botanical parks around the world.

 

Other: The Blue Morpho is often associated with healing beyond wonder. The movie The Blue Butterfly (2004) portrays a dramatic adventure about courage, redemption and love filmed in the rainforests of Costa Rica, and in Montreal, Canada.

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Pineapple Express

We know things taste better in the tropics. Great tasting food and tropical desserts come from great tasting ingredients like limes, oranges, mango, pineapple and other exotic fruits. Excellent fresh-peeled and even more delicious as a cool smoothie or refreshing sorbet. We take you from market to kitchen for your own tropical delight.

Did you know there are many varieties of pineapple and they are members of the bromeliad family?  They usually arrive in your local store in various states of ripeness, and the variety of pineapples have a different shape, skin coloration, meat and seasonality.  Generally speaking, the more compact the pineapple, the more concentrated the sugars. In Costa Rica they often serve small, golden amber pineapple as a snack or dessert, small grained, non-stringy with very tight openings in the meat; it’s incredibly sweet.

An amazing alternative is the white pineapple, also cultivated in Hawaii. In the wild it has variegated leaves and coloration in the veins of the skin, including a reddish or purple tint as well as green and red hues. The white has the consistency of watermelon, not stringy, is quite juicy and tastes like piña colada; not too sweet, just right and perfect to enjoy “licuado” or smoothie-style.  On one trip to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, our friend Rafa of Pelican House showed us which pineapples were ready to cut and enjoy immediately and licuado.  Machete in hand, the white rules.

Its easier than you think to make a refreshing frozen sorbet in your own kitchen with just a blender and freezer. It’s a beautiful dessert, so light, creamy, acidic and smooth on the palate. Much better for you than processed treats because you can choose the type of sweetener and the amount that you prefer, if any.  Follow our tips on juice handling and you’re ready to make a delicious tropical dessert just like you remember,  maybe even better.  For presentation, make a serving boat from a cleaned out shell of 1/2 pineapple, wash and freeze. Serve the sorbet or ice cream in the frozen pineapple boat and garnish with mint or citrus leaf. Pineapple is a good dietary source of fiber, vitamin C, B6, manganese, copper and thiamin.

Pineapple Sorbet

  • 1 medium fresh pineapple
  • ¾ cup caster sugar (finely ground sugar) Substitute 1/2 cup extra light Agave Nectar. To make caster sugar place sugar in food processor and process until sugar becomes dusty at edges and finely ground but not powdered.
  • 1 tsp. Fresh Lime juice
  • 3-4 drops pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp. aged amber or dark rum (optional)

Wash, peel and core the pineapple and cut into large chunks. Place pineapple into food processor and process until pureed. Add sugar and lime juice and mix well. Pour into a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and press puree through the sieve to catch any fibrous pulp. This will give you a creamy mixture. Add the vanilla and the rum to the sieved pineapple mixture. Cover and place in refrigerator for at least one hour. Place chilled mixture into an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturers instructions. In a pinch, a blender will work to re-aerate the semi frozen mixture and then place back into freezer. The trick is to serve soon after it has set so it can be scooped out. If it is hard frozen you will need to let stand out of the freezer until it softens for scooping out. It is futile to try to extract home made sorbet from a hard frozen container.

white pine3white pine

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